SUNDERLAND picked up a well-earned point against Manchester United yesterday, building on an inconsistent but generally positive performance at West Brom the week before.
Although the starting line-up against Louis van Gaal’s side suggested there might be a continuation of the imbalance shown in the preceding game, on the left hand side in particular, a revamped back four provided a more stable foundation for the rest of the team to build on.
This was, in part, down to the presence of Wes Brown in central defence; alongside John O’Shea, he was imperious against the Manchester United attacking threat of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
Santiago Vergini’s presence at right-back came at the expense of Valentin Roberge, whose meek performance the week before played a large part in Sunderland’s defensive frailties. With this more familiar back four lining up against a Manchester United side that had the feel of work in progress about it, Sunderland were able to play with more freedom and confidence.
Indeed, Patrick van Aanholt seemed to benefit from having Brown alongside him. At The Hawthorns, the Dutch defender wandered frustratingly, in the first half particularly, but was a more reliable presence against Antonio Valencia.
Although van Aanholt was isolated once or twice, it seems fair to suggest that had Brown been in the centre of defence the week before, his positioning would have been less questionable. Sometimes an experienced head is needed to look after a young player getting to grips with a new league.
Perhaps even more encouraging than the return to a solid, stable back four is the exciting development of a modern midfield three in front of it. The fulcrum of this engine room is, of course, Lee Cattermole.
The man is quite simply immense and was once again man of the match. England would surely have benefited from his presence in the World Cup, but his reputation dictates that he is unfairly overlooked for more fashionable, underperforming options.
England’s loss is our gain.
Sebastian Larsson, who has quietly grown into his role in the centre of midfield, meanwhile, really seems to “get it” when it comes to Poyet’s philosophy.
He works tirelessly off the ball and has shown an improvement on it, continuing his fine form from the back end of last season; the Swede has been involved in all three of our goals so far this term.
Encouragingly, with these two stalwarts doing the dirty work, Jack Rodwell showed further signs of finding his feet in the Premier League once again. A vastly improved performance, where his growing fitness levels were in evidence, was capped with a fine headed goal.
Sunderland’s midfield is at last, after what seems like years, beginning to take shape.
If only Sunderland had a left forward to play as part of the three in front of that midfield, then Poyet would have the basis for a potentially very competitive top-flight side.
At present, Steven Fletcher is struggling to adapt to the role he’s being asked to play, while Connor Wickham, for all he looks good on the ball, simply does not offer enough defensively as a left-sided forward.
Will Buckley at least put in a thrilling home debut performance that will have Adam Johnson worrying about his place in the side. Add to that the fact that Poyet will soon be able to call upon the talents of Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini to offer competition and things look a little healthier.
Even if Lee Congerton was unable to bring in any new players, at least Sunderland finally appear to be heading in the right direction.
It’s refreshing to see a brand of modern football being played out under the auspices of an intelligent tactician. Long may it continue.
* The Wise Men Say podcast is available from every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can be stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.